BCS Old Barnardians Address 24.6.23

I am a fan of the late chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks. Many of you will perhaps know his writing through the Credo column in the Times, maybe you can call to mind his being on Thought for the Day on Radio 4. If, like me, you like book recommendations then hunt out his ‘Dignity of Difference’ and ‘The home we build together’  both of which are about how to create and sustain global and national multi-cultural societies at a time when our differences risk tearing us apart. Or you might read The Great Partnership, which is about how faith and science have worked together down the centuries. On my shelves too (for yes, I told you I’m a fan) I have some of Sack’s exegetical works: books that seek to explain the Old Testament scripture which, precisely because they are written from a faith-filled Jewish perspective both enrich and challenge my understanding of the texts we share.

And so an unashamed quote taken from one of Jonathan Sack’s books in which (himself quoting a study of the life of the shtetl in Eastern Europe) he extols the virtue of education and the importance that study has within Jewish tradition.

‘The most important item in the family budget is the tuition fee that must be paid each term to the teacher of the younger boys’ school. ‘Parents will bend the sky to educate their sons’. The mother, who has charge of the household accounts, will cut the family food costs to the limit, if necessary, to pay for their son’s schooling. If the worst comes to the worst, she will pawn her cherished pearls in order to pay for the school term. The boy must study, the boy must become a good Jew – for her, the two are synonymous.’

We would, of course, make the language inclusive!

I chose this quote not particularly because it speaks to modern day concerns around family finances and how those concerns may affect Barney school but because it highlights the ancient religious obligation Judaism places upon its adherents to educate, to teach its children.  This obligation can be traced right back to the patriarch Abram who is told to pass on his faith to his descendants but is writ large in the events at Mount Sinai when the nation enters into a covenant with God. That covenant was written down (the Hebrew Aleph and Beth existed before the Greek Alpha and Beta) and all people were to be taught to read it. It is no accident that our word ‘school’ has a Hebrew antecedent: ‘schul’, nor was it an accident that Judaism had public schools almost 2000 years before our Education Act of 1870.

But what is to be taught? The Jewish schools under the rabbis established, in every village, a place where the study of Torah could flourish. Those who taught were held in the utmost respect by the community. Education began as soon as you could speak and was to be lifelong. Why? Because the community understood itself through study. Its values, its faith, its understanding of the world itself was shaped by learning. The accumulated wealth of Jewish culture down the years was passed on from generation to generation through education and there was an awareness it only takes one generation to fail in its obligation to the next for all to be lost.

The curriculum here at Barney school is (thankfully) very different but is much broader than a look at the timetable or the exams just taken by pupils might suggest. You (as Old Barnardians) alongside the current generation of pupils were taught, schooled, in much more than reading, writing and arithmetic…even more that the STEM subjects. Your schooling involved regular worship in this place, an introduction  to and appreciation of the Christian values that saw the school established in the first place and a training in the values that the school seeks to grow and develop in the student body today.

The school website lists these as

  • Community
  • Endeavour
  • Integrity
  • Compassion
  • Duty
  • Enjoyment

They are then fleshed out in the words gratitude, courage, resilience, humility, integrity, humour, compassion, service, leadership, curiosity, endeavour and creativity. These are ways of being, ways of living that presumably you value because you are here today. Yes, to pay respect to the teachers who taught you in this place but also to touch base with the values that have made you who you are, have shaped your adult life and which you wish to pass on to another generation through your ongoing support of your school.

The pace of change in our world is forever increasing. The place and role of education is rightly and hotly contested: What do we want our children to learn?  How do we want them to learn it? What values do we wish to pass on to the next generation? If we fail to answer these questions adequately much will be lost…possibly never to return. You are here in chapel because Barney gave you something worth having for which, in this holy place, we say ‘thanks be to God.’

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